Can You Be Held Responsible for Serving a Drunk Driver Who Injures Someone?

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Two friends who recently opened a wine bar asked me if they could be held responsible for an accident caused by a drunken patron who decided to get behind the wheel. The question is a legitimate one because we all know someone who works in the service industry as a server, bartender, or alcohol-serving establishment owner.

“Dram shop laws” are laws that hold establishments liable for damage caused by accidents, injuries, or deaths as a result of a customer’s drunk driving after they have left the establishment. The word “dram” is a British term of measurement for alcohol similar to a shot. In the United States the term “dram shop” refers to establishments that continue to serve alcohol to customers who are already clearly intoxicated.

While most states have some variation of dram shop laws, they differ as to how much liability, if any, is imposed on an alcohol-serving establishment who serves an intoxicated patron who later causes damage, injury, or death as a result of their drunk driving. Some states hold an establishment strictly liable if their drunk patron drives and causes damage, injury, or death. This means that the establishment’s service of the alcohol is deemed to be the proximate cause of any damage occurring after the intoxicated person leaves the establishment.

So what’s the law in California?

Fortunately for my entrepreneurial friends, California no longer follows the strict liability standard. California Civil Code section 1714 provides:

(b) It is the intent of the Legislature to . . . reinstate the prior judicial interpretation of this section as it relates to proximate cause for injuries incurred as a result of furnishing alcoholic beverages to an intoxicated person, namely that the furnishing of alcoholic beverages is not the proximate cause of injuries resulting from intoxication, but rather the consumption of alcoholic beverages is the proximate cause of injuries inflicted upon another by an intoxicated person.

(c) Except as provided in subdivision (d), no social host who furnishes alcoholic beverages to any person may be held legally accountable for damages suffered by that person, or for injury to the person or property of, or death of, any third person, resulting from the consumption of those beverages.

(d) Nothing in subdivision (c) shall preclude a claim against a parent, guardian, or another adult who knowingly furnishes alcoholic beverages at his or her residence to a person under 21 years of age, in which case, notwithstanding subdivision (b), the furnishing of the alcoholic beverage may be found to be the proximate cause of resulting injuries or death.

Simply put, a person’s willful act of drinking and driving are the proximate cause of any damage caused by the drunk driving, not the service of the alcohol by the establishment. If, however, the establishment serves alcohol to a minor who drive drunk and causes causes damage, injury, or death, the establishment may be held liable.

While my friends might be shielded from civil liability if an intoxicated patron causes damage, injury, or death, they may be held criminally liable if they serve alcohol to an obviously intoxicate person.

California Business and Professions Code section 25602(a) states “Every person who sells, furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished, or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual or common drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

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Proposed “Gun Violence Restraining Order” Could Affect DUI Offenders

Monday, June 2nd, 2014

In the wake of the tragic shootings last weekend at UC Santa Barbara, two Democrats in California’s State Assembly have announced their plans to introduce a new gun control measure which could prohibit those who have been convicted of a DUI from owning and carrying a gun.

The “gun violence restraining order,” proposed by Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), would create a system where a legal gun owner can have their guns confiscated if a family member believes they have a mental health problem that the state is not aware of. The “restraining order” could be issued upon gun owners who have passed NICS background checks, registered their firearms with the state, and have not broken any laws.

The idea for the “gun violence restraining order” is part of a recommendation from the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy which also suggests firearm prohibitions for other “risk factors” including “drug or alcohol use (linked to DUI convictions or misdemeanors involving a controlled substance).”

I won’t comment on the “restraining order” as it applies to those who have been identified by family members as having mental health problems, although I do have my opinions.

However, when it comes to prohibiting those who have suffered from a DUI conviction from owning a gun, I have an issue that I will express.

This isn’t the first time that legislators have attempted to place gun ownership restrictions on DUI offenders.

Last year, Democratic Sen. Lois Wolk of Davis introduced SB 755, a bill which would have prevented some DUI offenders from having guns for a period of 10 years. Fortunately, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill saying, “I am not persuaded that it is necessary to prohibit gun ownership on the basis of crimes that are non-felonies, non-violent and do not involve misuse of a firearm.”

Also last year, Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy proposed a law that would ban DUI offenders from owning a firearm. Supported by Connecticut democratic senator Martin Looney, the proposed law was intended to prohibit possession of firearms by people who have demonstrated “irresponsible behavior” and a “willingness to break the law.”

I’ve never been the biggest advocate for gun rights, but the suggestion that a DUI offense is a “risk factor” which should prevent someone from owning a gun is absurd.

The Consortium’s recommendation for a prohibition on gun ownership targets groups at heightened risk of violence. According to the Consortium, that includes individuals convicted of two or more DUIs in a five-year period. What is it about a DUI that’s violent? Taking into account DUIs which involve injuries or death, the “violence” involved unintended violence which has nothing to do with the propensity to misuse a gun.

Currently, certain convictions can prevent individuals from possessing a firearm. However, those convictions at least have a causal link to potential future gun violence. Driving under the influence, however, does not.

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California DWI – Driving While Addicted

Monday, May 19th, 2014

Believe it or not, it is a crime in California to drive while being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Lesser known California Vehicle Code section 23152(c) provides: “It is unlawful for any person who is addicted to the use of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

You may be asking yourself the same thing I did when I first read it. Huh?

The “huh?” was the reactionary expression of two other questions: What’s the purpose? And who is an addict?

In the 1965 case of People v. O’Neil, the California Supreme Court addressed both of these issues by looking at the legislative intent of 23152(c). The court determined that “when an individual has reached the point that his body reacts physically to the termination of drug administration, he has become ‘addicted’ within the meaning and purpose of [23152(c)]. Although physical dependency or the abstinence syndrome is but one of the characteristics of addiction, it is of crucial import in light of the purpose of [23152(c)] since it renders the individual a potential danger on the highway.”

While the court focused on the theory that an addict going through withdrawals can pose a risk to the roads, it said that a person need not be going through withdrawals to be arrested, charged, and convicted of California’s driving while addicted law.

“The prosecution need not prove that the individual was actually in a state of withdrawal while driving the vehicle. The prosecution’s burden is to show (1) that the defendant has become ‘emotionally dependent’ on the drug in the sense that he experiences a compulsive need to continue its use, (2) that he has developed a ‘tolerance’ to its effects and hence requires larger and more potent doses, and (3) that he has become ‘physically dependent’ so as to suffer withdrawal symptoms if he is deprived of his dosage.”

So let’s get this straight. You can be charged with a crime if you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol even if you’re not intoxicated or you’re not going through withdrawals. So then that begs the question: What’s the point?

Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court has yet to answer that question.

Fortunately, however, the law does not apply to those who are participating in a narcotic treatment program.

Well it’s nice to know that the law only protects those who are receiving treatment for their disease, but not those who aren’t.

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California Legislature Kills Zero-Tolerance Marijuana DUI Law

Monday, May 12th, 2014

In early April, I wrote about the terrible idea that was AB 2500.

Introduced by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, the original bill would have changed California’s current DUI law making it unlawful for a person to drive with any detectable amount of marijuana in the system. The legislation was later amended to set a limit of two nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. The law also sought to make it illegal to drive with any trace of any other controlled substance in the system.

Whew! You can all let out a collective sigh of relief because the proposed law was killed in the California legislature.

AB 2500 was defeated by the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a vote of 4-2.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but I simply can’t say it enough. We cannot punish sober drivers merely because they may have smoked marijuana a day, a month, or a week ago.

Unlike alcohol, THC stays in a user’s system for up to weeks at a time even though the intoxicating effects of the marijuana may only last a couple of hours. And unlike the established relationship between blood-alcohol levels and impairment, THC in the blood does not necessarily correlate to impairment. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said, “It is difficult to establish a relationship between a person’s THC blood or plasma concentration and performance impairing effects.”

In late April, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law similar to California’s proposed AB 2500, and rightly so.

Arizona’s high court reaffirmed the trial court’s correct decision to toss the case of Hrach Shilgevorkyan who had been arrested for driving under the influence after a blood test detected the presence of marijuana.

“For example, at oral argument the State acknowledged that, under its reading of the statute, if a metabolite could be detected five years after ingesting a proscribed drug, a driver who tested positive for trace elements of a non-impairing substance could be prosecuted,” said the court in supporting its opinion.

The Court went on to conclude, "Because the legislature intended to prevent impaired driving, we hold that the 'metabolite' reference in [the law] is limited to any of a proscribed substance's metabolites that are capable of causing impairment . . . Drivers cannot be convicted of the . . . offense based merely on the presence of a non-impairing metabolite that may reflect the prior usage of marijuana.”

Let’s hope the California Supreme Court never has to make such an obvious decision.

But you just never know. Frazier’s response to his bill’s failure? “I have eleven more years” to continue working on the bill.

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DUI DMV Hearing: Where’s the Due Process?

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

I often tell my students that when they hear the phrase “due process” they should think of fairness. When it comes to criminal actions in a court of law, due process (at least in theory) is the cornerstone to the proceedings. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for DMV hearings (Admin Per Se hearings) following a DUI arrest.

When a person is arrested on suspicion of a California DUI their license will be suspended by the California DMV if one of two things will happen:  1.) law enforcement takes a blood or breath test which indicates that the driver’s blood alcohol concentration level is 0.08 percent or more, or 2.) the driver refuses to complete either a blood or breath test. Due process provides that a driver has the right to request an administrative hearing to challenge the DMV’s evidence.

However, just because a driver is provided the right to a hearing does not mean that due process will be present at the hearing.

Imagine a criminal court case in which the defendant attends the hearing at the prosecutor’s office. During the hearing, prosecutor argues for a conviction. Immediately following the argument, the prosecutor throws on a robe, steps up to the judge’s bench, and rules on his own argument. Doesn’t sound fair, does it? It’ not, but that’s essentially what happens at a DMV Admin Per Se hearing.

The DMV, the same agency which is trying to sustain the suspension, is the agency which conducts the hearing. What’s more, the DMV hearing officer, who, believe it or not, is a DMV employee, conducts the hearing. (Starting to see a pattern?) The hearing officer can object to the driver’s evidence. The hearing officer can rule on his own objection. Finally, the hearing officer decides if he or she wins. They almost always do.

Forget about impartiality. Surely, the hearing officer must be someone versed in the law, perhaps a lawyer or someone holding a law degree. Think again. In fact, according to the DMV’s employment eligibility requirements, a hearing officer need not have a college degree!

Winning a DMV hearing is difficult for lawyers (although not impossible). Since the hearing is considered civil, there is no right to an attorney. What about those drivers who have to conduct the hearing themselves because they can’t afford an attorney? How difficult must it be for them to prevail in a hearing where the cards are already stacked against them?

Speaking of the hearing being civil, there’s much lower standard of proof that the hearing officer must meet before they can suspend your license. In a criminal court case, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a driver was driving with a BAC level of 0.08 percent or above. At the DMV hearing, the hearing officer only needs to prove more likely than not the driver had a BAC of 0.08 percent or more.

It is much easier for a hearing officer to meet this lower standard when they’re allowed to introduce hearsay police reports. Hearsay statements are generally excluded from court cases because the person making the statement cannot be cross examined. Not the case in DMV hearings. Most of the time, arresting officers are absent from DMV hearings. If a driver wishes to cross examine the arresting officer who wrote the report, he or she must subpoena the officer at his own cost. This includes paying for the officer’s salary for the time that they attend the hearing.

Loss of a driver’s license can have devastating consequences. One would think that with so much at stake, people would be afforded safeguards that would ensure fairness.  But where’s the fairness in any of this? Where’s the due process? 

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